Tag Archives: Alison Morton

Joining the Dots

(A wrap-up of the 2017 Charroux Literary Festival):

Have you ever been to a series of unrelated performances and found that a common theme emerges?

This is exactly what happened at this year’s Charroux Literary Festival, and I wasn’t the only one to notice an intangible thread weaving through the author talks. See if you can spot it from my summary below.

So, for this second edition of the Charroux festival I was a speaking author, which meant I was invited to the pre-festival dinner (ah, the joys of fame!).

I was so excited about meeting everyone that I arrived a few hours early and had plenty of time to walk around the medieval village. This included discovering the fascinating abbey ruins where I dawdled among the spirits of times past.

I also came across the house where French writer Robert Charroux lived, and learnt that he was a pioneer in Ancient Astronaut theories: the pseudoscientific theories that suggest aliens visited Earth in antiquity and prehistoric times.

I knew I wouldn’t have a spare minute for contemplation once the festival began – and I was right. Even without the festival, Charroux is a superb destination for a day’s exploration (and I’m not just referring to the pub that has Guinness on tap).

During the 3 days, I went to 4 talks involving historical authors Barbara Erskine, Tracey Warr, Alison Morton (Roma Nova) and James Vance (World War II). I’ve never been tempted to write historical fiction because I know nothing about history and would be afraid of getting everything wrong. But the discussions I heard helped me understand why writing historical fiction can be so alluring.

For Tracey and Barbara, who write about the medieval period, there is very little documentation. We know what the historical figures did but we don’t know why they did it and how they felt about it.

This means that joining the dots to create a picture of events leaves plenty of room for imagination – which is exactly what novelists like to explore: in other words, the ‘unknowability’ of the past, as Tracey quoted.

Even the facts themselves can be dubious: there isn’t just one story about what happened, there are many stories – and bards and pilgrims played a role in this as they passed on news orally. The difference between Welsh and English records for the same events are a good example of this.

All four authors talked about being conscious of the past when they visit historical places, as well as the importance of imagining their characters going about their daily life in those places. Barbara added that it’s as if the past is trying to get through to the present, an idea she explores fully in the ghostly elements of her fiction.

Nick Inman, author of Mystical France, talked about the idea of science being able to explain how mystical symbols and sculptures were created, but not being able to explain why it was done. He suggested using your intuition when you visit ancient places to try to find your own answers.

He has done this over the last five years, and he captivated his audience with the slideshow of mystical symbols and sculptures he has collected during his travels around France. No wonder so many people surged forward to buy his book after his talk.

Not quite so many people rushed to buy Tree Magic after my session about the road to publication, even though a major theme is how science can’t explain certain spiritual aspects of life. I guess I have some lessons to learn from Nick Inman there. But I did sign plenty of copies and get some great feedback – and nobody actually fell asleep.

The talk that created the most discussion was Mike Welham’s presentation about mixing fact and fiction. His novels are based on events that have never been satisfactorily explained; for his chosen themes, he has researched and summed up all the mysterious inconsistencies to suggest huge cover-up operations, which he has published as fiction.

He presented his conspiracy theories about frogman Buster Crabb, The World Trade Center Building 7 and David Kelly’s death. We were lucky to have Andrew Lownie, an author who has spent decades researching Guy Burgess, in the audience, as well as TV and Foreign Office specialist Jane Lythell. Their points of view as experienced researchers added to the charged atmosphere during the session.

The common thread (have you spotted it yet?) didn’t reach all the creaky-floored rooms of the Maison Charlois during the festival, as the sessions on the craft of writing had nothing mystical about them (although you could argue that the whole writing process is rather mysterious).

photo by Jacqui from French Village Diaries

This category of talks included a useful analysis of humour with Chuck Grieve; a detailed session on playwriting with Gordon & Jocelyn Simms; an exploration of character and an insight into psychological thrillers with Jane Lythell (what a lovely lady); and workshops with Vanessa Couchman.

I talked about writing for Young Adults and persuaded my audience to wield their pens – which produced some promising beginnings.

There was also a New Writers Workshop, chaired by Susie Kelly and including Jane Lythell, myself, Alison Morton and Blackbird publisher and author Stephanie Zia. This was an interactive event in which we all gave our advice for new writers and then circulated among groups to answer questions.

The author talks are, of course, central to the festival and I wish I’d been able to find a Harry Potter time turner so I could attend them all – both French and English. But they were far from being the only element to the three magical days in Charroux. The other elements came from the festival supporters.

There’s nothing like having a drink or a meal with other festival-goers; or having a laugh with the lovely ladies of the Hope Association tea tent, who delivered a constant supply of drinks, English food and good humour. Cheerful volunteers were everywhere, from the helpful people at the reception desk, in the bookshop and at the Enfants de la Rue charity stand, to the behind-the-scenes drivers and hosts. It was great to see so many familiar faces and make new friends.

But my biggest thanks have to go to Kate and Chris, the festival organisers, who made this all possible. Did they create the mystical thread on purpose, or is it just in my head?

photo by Tracey Warr

Charroux 2019 seems a long way away. Luckily, we have the 2017 edition of another intimate literary festival full of interesting people in October: Parisot. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Advertisements

Charmed by Charroux

Half past eleven on a warm Wednesday night in the depths of the Charente countryside. I’m on my bike, racing down a dark lane, acorns crunching under my tyres. Tarmac gives way to a narrow track, alternately stony and muddy. Shapes lurk just outside the halo of my battery light.

I hear heavy breathing behind the hedge.

It’s just the cows, I tell myself, and giggle out loud. Then I hit a bump and my lamp flies off the handlebars.

Bugger. I wince at my screeching brakes. The heavy breathing turns into a flurry of galloping hooves, and silence reigns. I turn to see a sorry pinpoint of light lying in a bed of nettles twenty feet behind me. I giggle again.

It all seems excessively funny. I suppose it would: I’ve just left the merry opening meal of the Charroux literary festival and I’m (very slightly) drunk. Not just on wine. I’m drunk on delight at seeing the writers from last year’s St. Clementin literary festival. I’m drunk on the freedom of being a solitary camper in a farmer’s field. And, more than anything, I’m drunk on the prospect of three days of literary inspiration.

DSCN2509Kate and Christine, the Verteuil Verse team, have made a great choice of authors for this inaugural event. Kate Mosse (Labyrinth) is headlining the festival.

The authors listen to each other’s talks, demonstrating how even bestselling writers can learn something from their colleagues. Have Verteuil Verse chosen the authors for their generosity, or is it the convivial atmosphere of the festival that makes it so easy to have a cup of tea and chat with the literary icons?

Most surprising is how each session is completely different. Exquisite fiction writer Isabel Ashdown (Glasshopper) makes our hearts sing with her settings. Crime queen Elizabeth Haynes (Into the Darkest Corner) is a thoughtful, romantic sweetie. She’s the last person you’d expect to write about decomposing bodies. She tells us how her seven years as an intelligence analyst in the police force have influenced her writing, and goes on to share a crime panel with Roma Nova expert Alison Morton and organiser Christine Collette. The session soon becomes a fascinating open discussion about moral dilemmas and Goodies v Baddies.

This relaxed atmosphere is at the heart of the festival, where our love of stories brings writers and readers together on an equal footing. Kate Mosse shares the history of the Languedoc with her spellbound public. Jacqui Lofthouse (Bluethroat Morning) inspires us to use art as a basis for writing, and chairs a useful writers’ networking session in which we get to talk to each other about our own projects. Barry Walsh (The Pimlico Kid) gives an insight into mixing memory and imagination, regularly entertaining us with his theories – such as how your preferred seat in a train can reveal your approach to writing.

On Thursday evening Diana Morgan-Hill (Love and Justice) ends the author talks with engaging readings from her memoir. And Sarah Harrison (The Flowers of the Field) rounds off Friday evening with stand up comedy as she reels off anecdotes from her writing and broadcasting career.

Jacqui Lofthouse & Alison Morton

Jacqui Lofthouse & Alison Morton

Between sessions I chat to other festival-goers at the bookshop or in the Hope charity refreshments marquee. Lots of faces are vaguely familiar. That’s part of the fun of being foreigners in France. Now they’ve reminded me of their names (once again), I’m confident I’ll remember them next time we meet.

It’s impossible to participate in all the events, which include bookmaking, short story critiquing, theatre skills and the art of translation. Gordon and Jocelyn Simms, the lovely couple who organise the St.Clementin literary festival, are able to relax and enjoy things this time – although they are running the poetry & playwriting workshops.

By 7pm I’m exhausted (nothing to do with the hangover). After a 20-minute cycle ride along the muddy track, over the footbridge and up the long, steep hill to my campsite (I don’t remember that bit from Wednesday night), I collapse in front of my tent. At half past nine I’m sprawled over my camping mat, zips closed, listening to the screech of owls and thinking back over all the wise words I’ve heard.

I hear a strange, breathless grunting beside my tent.

I’m not as amused as on Wednesday night. I peek outside.

There are no lights in sight. But I’m not alone. Although there aren’t any other tents, there is a cluster of animal shadows around me. The grunting begins again and climaxes in a recognisable braying. Not the flashers / rapists / murderers from Elizabeth Haynes’ stories. Just donkeys.

I zip up the tent and wonder who I can persuade to camp with me next time.

***

Many thanks to Kate Britten, Christine Collette and their team of volunteers. You made the first Charroux festival a wholly enjoyable occasion.

 

An Arty Business

The highlight of my last week – besides rediscovering that the sun can be hot – was a writing workshop in the Deux-Sèvres with lovely Michèle Roberts. She’s half French and half English, which makes her particularly interesting to us Francophiles. As well as her understanding of cultural differences, particularly in literature, she is warm, generous and encouraging. We love her! Many thanks to Gordon and Jocelyn Simms for organising the day.

English literary events in my part of France are rare, so it was intriguing to meet the participating writers. What a friendly bunch they were. I could have chatted to them all day. But the call of the pen meant we had to sit down and actually write. Some rebels carried on conversations by passing notes, though I’m not sure this counted as a workshop activity.

Luckily, our pens didn’t accompany us to lunch, which meant I was able to have a long chat with successful self-published author Alison Morton. Her business sense impressed me. And it got me thinking…

rosé

Back with French friends that evening, I met my opponent-in-war (see my blog post The Novel War). And made the mistake of telling him about my inspiring day.

“Hmm,” he said. “Trust you Brits to turn art into business.”

And so began a delightful evening – in a rather less supportive atmosphere than Michèle’s workshop.

We drew our swords: should writing be treated as a business and marketed to readers? Or should it remain an art form and sleep in a notebook?

He claimed it is enough to create art; that art is about expressing yourself. He said that if you create to sell, your creations are no longer sincere. Artists create for themselves. They don’t care whether they sell their work or not.

I thought about the joy of writing family memoirs; the comfort of a journal; the pleasure of finding exactly the right image to convey an emotion; the satisfaction in perfecting a short story or a poem, knowing that it will never be published. I thought about unpaid bloggers. And finally I thought about the dreaded synopses, covering letters, blurbs and social media.

Many glasses of rosé later, we were no closer to a compromise.

*

The question of whether to write for ourselves or to write for a market is one that haunts me. Some experts advise writing with a particular market in mind. Others tell you to write whatever comes naturally.

When my moody teenagers were yelling babes*, I took part-time parental leave (thank you France) so that I could change their nappies myself every afternoon. Oh yes: and so I could write during their siestas. I wanted to write myself a proper novel without making all the mistakes I’d made in novel Zero. I had no thought of a market. I knew I could write a novel because I’d already done it. But novel Zero was tightly plotted and planned and hadn’t left enough room for creativity. So I wanted to write a novel organically; to begin with a character and let the story grow.

“Don’t worry,” I told my partner. “I just need to get this writing thing out of my system. Then I’ll go back to full time project management, the kids can go to school and we’ll get the car mended.”

Between drafts of my organic novel ‘Tree Magic’ (to be published in January 2017 by Impress Books), I started to write commissioned feature articles. This meant I had no time for my novel. But it didn’t matter: feature writing was so fulfilling. I met people, my work was read (even if nobody actually looked at my name) and I was being paid.

Then, one day, a French friend said, “This magazine writing is all very well. But don’t forget about what you really want to write.” I interpreted this as: ‘don’t let business stand in the way of art’.

A few months later I went back to my fiction. The dishwasher broke down and didn’t get mended.

*

Although Michèle Roberts talked about the differences between the French and British approaches to literature, we didn’t have time to distil our thoughts down to Art versus Business. But I do feel that, for many French people, art is superior to business: whereas – dare I say it – the Anglo-Saxon culture celebrates business achievements.

I concluded my rosé-tinted evening with the thought that we need Art for personal expression and Business to buy time for that personal expression. Who can blame writers for trying to do both at the same time?

 

 

*I actually love my children to bits! They’re never moody and they never yelled. Well, not much.